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Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India

by Priyam Global Initiative, Inc
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India
Support & Mentor Special Needs Mothers in India

In the early years of a social change initiative, it often feels like momentum is driven by the founder. Decisions, systems, inquiries, and key shifts in direction all move forward, initially, from the mind of the founder. But the day-to-day decisions are actually the least of a founder's responsibility: her ultimate goal is to create a process that flows without her.

When a social change initiative becomes more rooted in the place and people who benefit from it, and less reliant on the resources and ideas of the founder herself, this is when the concept of sustainability, of lastingness, shifts from concept to reality.

This shift happened noticeably in April of this year, as my role evolved from leader to advisor. In the last few months, I've observed Priyam expand in new directions with very little of my own input. We have a strong foundation of systems and structures in place, a supportive global community (you as you're reading this!), a MAHLA family of strong female graduates, and an organic sense of momentum.

This month, we're embarking on next steps and new dreams. We are opening a new MAHLA storefront in Chennai to support the livelihoods of all MAHLA graduates and we are simultaneously recruiting a new group of ten mothers of young children with autism – our third cohort!

A little more than twenty women completed the extension phase of the MAHLA program in July; the extension was formed by graduates from Year 1 and Year 2 who met several times each week since February to consistently meet weekly product targets (e.g., number of baskets and mats woven) and continue to participate in monthly life skills and knowledge classes.

This fall, we are opening a shop in Chennai to sell the products that the mothers make. We will also hire a full-time employee to manage sales. And we also welcome a new cohort of ten mothers who will begin their year in the intensive phase of the MAHLA program – a year of classes in topics ranging from healthy nutrition to healthy communication, parenting, and child development paired with a year of mentorship and livelihood training in skills like basket and rug weaving, sewing, and jewelry. These new mothers all have a child aged 0–6 years old who has been diagnosed with autism, and they have all been selected by Priyam Global from a new government-funded school for children with autism. 

I feel genuinely hopeful about the world when I watch Priyam unfold. Somehow, in this messy world of disconnection, insincerity, and what feels like a collective inability to see and to listen, with your help we have created a little ecosystem in India where women can truly see and listen to each other, connect in lasting ways, and live and work with an authenticity that I aspire to.

Thank you for your support, as always.

If you would like to support us financially, we currently need a few new monthly recurring donations ($25–$50/month) to take the torch from a few long-term monthly donors who recently needed to step down. You can always set up a new monthly donation here. Otherwise, look for our next report in December!

April 2019 – Chennai, India

For the first time in five years, the sky is blue.

It's my eleventh trip here in five years, but my first in April. Every day, all day, yellow-blossomed copperpods and pink mariposa trees wave in a gentle breeze beneath a clear sky. The polluted clouds of winter are gone and the the oppressive heat of summer has not yet descended. And with the balmy blue-skyed shift of spring, I sense a shift in Priyam, too. A steadiness of purpose and connection.

I arrive to the Priyam office on my first morning, ready for a progress briefing with my team. I'm eager for updates: how has the MAHLA Project Phase 2 unfolded since we launched it in February?

Here's what I find:

  • The women consistently meet together in the center 4-5 days per week
  • They practice making woven mats, baskets, tote bags, and clothing – organized into small groups based on their interests, talents, and skills
  • Together with Rani and Gereena, our program director and coordinator, the women have created clear proposals – including cost analyses – for what they want to do next. Some will work alone, focusing on jewelry or sewing, but most intend to form small collectives to work towards product targets, build a client base, and sell products together.
  • The women are relaxed and comfortable together, teasing and teaching and supporting each other in a steady flow of words and laughter as they work.

On this trip, we focus on teamwork, communication, and of course – laughter.

We spend a day at the beach, followed by visits to a temple and a church, for our second annual beach day. Honestly, is there anything like getting drenched by the sea under a blue sky, the rhythm of the waves, your children shrieking and laughing, to lift some of the weight from your chest? Far too often, poverty steals the chance for lightheartedness, for forgetfulness. It becomes impossible to escape even just for a day. This doesn't seem fair, so we have Priyam beach days. They are always a highlight. The colorful saris of the women swirl in the water, their long braids dripping with saltwater, the children are ecstatic (and so are the mothers), everyone is soaked. I get sunburned. We feel like a family.

On another day, in the center, I lead a session that we all should do more often: the women sit cross-legged on the floor and take turns answering the following questions aloud. What am I proud of about myself? What am I good at? I do it, too. It's strange and new to celebrate ourselves in this way, but it feels powerful.

I open and close the session with a short group meditation: we put our hands on our chests and our bellies, breathe deeply, and feel gratitude for our own strength and resilience.

Priyam is no longer just about alleviating immediate survival needs. We've made it to a deeper level, to the places where the heart and the mind can begin to shift and grow in permanent ways.

In that small lemon-yellow room, I am struck by how much I have learned from these women. They learn from each other, they learn from me, and I learn from them. We are more than a project or an organization or an initiative. We have become a sisterhood.

Have you ever read Priyam Global's Manifesto? It's a little paragraph that outlines Priyam Global's core values. Focus on relationships. Brainstorm often and together. Welcome complexity. Evaluate and pivot. Be dynamic. Plan for the longterm. Stay humble. First drafted in 2015, that little paragraph continues to shape how we operate today.

Our plans to expand into rural areas of Chennai in early 2019 were based on careful thought and detailed evaluations of the situation in the communities where we work, alongside a realistic perspective of what we currently know and what we still need to learn. After two years of piloting our MAHLA project, which supports mothers of children with disabilities to develop self-confidence, strong friendships, and income-generating skills, we felt pretty confident that we had enough experience to begin turning our focus outward – beyond the families of children enrolled in our partner Hope School. 

Then, at the end of our second pilot year in December 2018, we interviewed every woman who has graduated from our program (a total of 24) and held several group conversations to hear their feedback and get a sense for how equipped they actually were to maintain lasting change for themselves and their families.

What evolved from these conversations was a two-fold realization:

  1. Our program is meeting the real needs of mothers and resulting in lasting emotional and mental improvement. This is illustrated by the 0% drop-out rate from our program, the steady attendance, and the obvious ease and love between the mothers compared to their withdrawn and anxious states at the beginning of the program.

  2. Equipping mothers with skills and knowledge, improving their wellbeing, and helping them to create the ability to make lasting change was the first step; now we need to support their own leadership capacity. The mothers unanimously requested a six month extension of the program, which we are referring to as Phase 2. In this phase, mothers from our first and second cohorts will be combined into a single group. Now that the mothers have useful skills and a wider perspective of their own value and worth, we need to teach them how to use their skills: how to set goals and objectives, how to problem solve, and how to advocate for their own needs. Taking part in our program infused the women with forward momentum, and now through practice and a modified version of support, we will work to ensure that this momentum is deeply ingrained and sustainable.

We have decided to grant the mothers' request and enrolled all 24 mothers in Phase 2, which begins this week! The women will have 6 months to practice together, teach each other, and work to meet various product targets. We are developing a personal capacity-building curriculum, and the women will participate in ongoing workshops to articulate their dreams, set goals, set priorities, solve problems creatively, and develop ther new-found confidence.

The standard approach for development and poverty alleviation programs is to set a fixed timeline based on funding and to end the program at a pre-determined time. However, the result of this is that the globe is littered with development projects that have ended too early or in the wrong way, and as a result any progress made during the project is lost. This is a waste of time, resources, effort, and hope.

We believe that by providing this additional support to the women in our program, who have consistently proven their commitment to improving their situations and making the life that they hope for, we will safeguard the investment we have already made in their lives. We also believe that a strengthened and unified family (as the MAHLA mothers refer to themselves) will become a self-sustaining network of mothers that can grow organically, a network that expands through the leadership of women who have already graduated.

We still plan to expand to rural areas, but have put that plan on hold for the next few months.

As always, feel free to email if you have any questions about our program. It is the power of individual donations that allows us the flexibility we need to continually improve our project based on the complexities of real lives, real people, and real possibilities. Thank you for funding this project!

Saranya, December 2018
Saranya, December 2018

Saranya is a wife and mother of two children. When her youngest daughter was born with a developmental disability, everyone in Saranya’s life blamed her. Before enrolling in Priyam’s program for mothers of children with disabilities, Saranya’s life played out in her home—she had no reason to leave her house, and felt very isolated. She could not find a job that was flexible enough to also allow for her to care for her daughter, as each morning and afternoon she needs to accompany her to and from a special education school. Saranya became depressed, and the poverty that her family lived in made everything worse. But then she was given an unexpected opportunity when she was invited to join Priyam Global’s MAHLA (Mothers Access Health, Livelihoods, and Advocacy) program in 2018. We sat down with Saranya earlier this month to hear in her own words how being a part of this program has changed her life.

Interview designed and edited by Michaela, Priyam Global director. Interview led and translated by Gereena, Priyam Global social worker and program coordinator.


G: Before you joined the program, describe how you felt about your life at the time. What thoughts and feelings did you have most often?

S: Before joining this program, my life was a question mark without any answer. I felt very lonely and isolated. I would go outside and mingle with society, but I was unable to share my happiness with my family, friends, or relatives. Very often I felt I must have committed some sin in my life, which is why god has given me a special [needs] child. Everyone ignored me since I had a special child. I was not able to attend any family occasions because they would see me with pity and talk behind my back. This made me feel upset and weak.

G: Before you joined the program, describe how you spent your time. For example, describe what would happen in a typical day.

S: Before joining this program, I mostly spent my time doing household work and taking care of my three children after they came back from school. My entire world was in that house; without any rest, I was the only one behind all of the things that needed to be done to maintain a good family, without any encouragement from anyone, including from relatives or friends.

G: For you specifically, what was the best part about being in the MAHLA program?

The best part about the MAHLA program is that we [the mothers in the program] were able to develop many new friendships and we began to know each other very well. Before the program, no one knew each other, but now we have all become like one big family. 

G: What has changed in your life and in you since you have been in the MAHLA program?

S: The best way that my life changed through the MAHLA program is that I now feel that I am a “super mom”. I don’t compare with others anymore and I celebrate each and every little thing around me. I made new friends with whom I can share my thoughts and experiences freely. I am no longer experiencing as much depression after entering into the Mahla project. I have also become more aware of health: cleanliness, hygiene, and nutrition because of the education sessions. Now I am focused on creating a life where I can live for many more years with my child.

G: What did you learn about yourself during the program? Did you discover anything new about your talents or interests, your feelings or your personality?

S: This project made a drastic change in everyone’s life, not only mine. I didn’t miss any of the training hours or educational sessions because I wanted to gain as much knowledge as possible.  This knowledge has allowed me to improve my personality and gather new ideas to develop and grow as a women with a special [needs] child. Before coming to this program I built a barrier for myself in which I believed I couldn’t do anything new. I would always depend on my husband as I didn’t have a proper education. Now I have developed courage and self-confidence through continuous training and awareness classes. I would like share my experiences and knowledge with [other mothers] so they can feel motivated to become independent in their own life.

G: Has anything changed in your family because of the program? For example, has your relationship with your husband changed? Has your relationship with (or understanding of) your special needs child changed?

S: Of course, many changes have occurred because of the project, especially within my husband. Previously, he did not involve me in anything. However, after I started learning new skills he got began to believe that I could acquire a better position by earning more money. My family members and friends now have more respect for me and even ask my opinion for new innovations in their life. This has made me feel like the happiest person in the world. If I had said no to [joining] this project I would feel like I was of no value, like trash in my house. My future has truly changed from this program — now I have the confidence to face any problems or issues that can happen. My past was a tragedy and my present was unhealthy, but now I would like to make some changes in the future, not only through my personality but from being able to stay stable and strong. I am so thankful that I had an opportunity through this MAHLA project.

In the rush of program management, planning, and implementation, it is really easy for me to forget to stop and reflect. Where have we been? Where are we going? Partnering with GlobalGiving has been really helpful to us as an organization, and to me as a leader, in many ways. One in particular is the way that GlobalGiving incentivizes partner organizations to continually learn and grow in areas of engagement and effectiveness.

Recently, I completed a GlobalGiving exercise designed in three simple sets of questions to help organizations reflect on how they prioritize listening, acting, and learning as they move forward with their work. I have shared it below, in hopes that it will give you a glimpse into our work, why it matters, what it can accomplish, and the commitment that we have to always listen, act, learn, and repeat. 

Read time: 5-8 minutes

Listen: What is a need, challenge or obstacle that your organization has faced? How did your organization identify it?

When we were designing our first pilot (2015–2016) of our targeted support program for mothers of children with severe disabilities in poverty in India, we visited the homes of nine mothers; of these, seven would eventually enroll in our first pilot. Based on information gathered during pre-visit interviews and during our home visits, we knew that the majority of mothers felt incredibly overwhelmed by their caregiving responsibilities - in addition to caring for a high-needs child while having relatively low knowledge about their child's disability or needs, almost all of the mothers were also solely responsible for maintaining their households, as is the custom in traditional Indian culture. Fathers earn income, and mothers maintain the household. All of the mothers wished that they could earn income to supplement their family's needs, but they did not have anyone to watch their child while they were at work, and their child's needs varied so much that any work opportunity needed to be very flexible and supportive.

During our first pilot program, most of the women were mothers who had enrolled their child for 5 hours each day at our partner special education school. However, there was one mother who was a widow, and who lived too far to enroll her child in a daily school. Her son was almost 18 years old and had severe cerebral palsy. His mother had no way of earning income and no wheelchair to give her son some mobility, so she relied on extended family and her son spent most of his time on a bed. When we visited this mother in her home, I was struck by how blank her expressions were; she never smiled. She said she had no friends, and although her father was supportive, she worried constantly about the future – what would happen when her father was gone? We invited this mother to our program, thinking she would be excited at the possibilities it would offer. We assumed that her extended family could watch her son for a few hours each day while she enrolled in the program. The plan was that we would pay her transportation across the town to the center each day.

However, she told us something unexpected: her family was also very poor, and as they knew she would be earning a small cash stipend in the program each month, they would expect her to pay them for watching her son. So, her earned income would go towards paying for care for her son rather than towards buying what they need and building up some savings. 

Act: What actions did your organization take to address this issue?

I was determined that this mother would be able to enroll in our program. She was clearly depressed, and her son spent all of his life on a small bed in a tiny dark hut. Both of them deserved a better life. We had already allocated money for transportation, but now it seemed that her son would have nowhere to go while his mother was learning job skills, health education, and building relationships with other mothers.

When I asked our partner school if her son could spend those hours in the school, they said this wasn't possible because they were understaffed to provide for all of his needs. So then I suggested that her son come to the center with her, but the mother responded that he was very attached to her and if she was nearby, he would constantly demand her attention and she would not be able to engage in the program.

This may seem like a simple solution, but it finally occurred to me to create a special line in the budget to hire a part-time caretaker who would accompany the son to the school each day and be with him at all times. When I suggested this, there were no other barriers to the mother attending, and she agreed to enroll.

What did you learn from your experiment? What will you do next based on these results?

The lessons I learned from this challenge shaped how we approach our program model.

First, I learned firsthand that one of my favorite sayings – "everything is figure-out-able" – is true. Marie Forleo, a well-known businesswoman, coined this phrase, and I truly believe in it. There is always, always a solution.

Second, I learned that when designing a program for real people, especially those who are facing a lot of challenges, a one size fits all approach is never appropriate. I wanted to be fair in how I designed the program, but I realized that some mothers in our program were facing greater challenges than others, and thus a greater level of support was entirely appropriate. This experience strengthened my resolve to design a program in which no one would face challenges that we overlooked. This is particularly important to us because the families we work with are consistently families who have been overlooked by other programs, initiatives, and projects because their needs are so complex.

The mother in this story completed all twelve months of our first program. At the beginning, she seemed withdrawn and nervous. Three days a week, however, she showed up to our center determined to learn. When making jewelry was difficult for her and a few other mothers, we learned that they had poor eyesight, which (perhaps again surprisingly) was not something we considered! We were able to arrange free eye care for her and the other women who needed it. When the mothers began to learn tailoring, this particular mother began to shine. She had a talent for sewing, and began to help other mothers learn the techniques. She began to smile more easily, and her confidence steadily unfolded. When her son became sick, she was able to use money from our emergency medical fund. When she graduated from our program, she used her saved cash stipends to put forward 50% of the money needed to buy a sewing machine and Priyam Global matched the other 50%.

Shortly after graduation, she moved to a rural area to be closer to her family and to build a small home on a plot of land nearby. She took her son, her daughter, and her sewing machine with her, leaving us with one of the most important lessons we have learned: To fulfill our commitment of creating a program that provides women with the psychological space and relief to plan for their future and change the course of their lives, we must stay curious, aware, and creative.


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Organization Information

Priyam Global Initiative, Inc

Location: Bloomington, IN - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @priyamglobal
Project Leader:
Michaela Cisney
Bloomington, IN United States
$17,310 raised of $20,000 goal
181 donations
$2,690 to go
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